Look, I know that it's October and Thanksgiving is a ways off, but it's going to take me 6 weeks to build you a dining table that's big enough to sit all the people you've invited over for Tofurkey and sweet potatoes. So now is the time to gather your wits and go shopping. Here are the things you want to think about when buying the most important piece of furniture in your house.
It's The Most Important Piece Of Furniture In Your House
You will have a million conversations around this table. You will have arguments, break ups, reunions, laughter, lessons, card games, homework assignments, birthday parties and various and sundry emotional breakdowns. Families are formed around this table, relationships are made and dissolved. There is no other single hunk of wood and glass in your house that will be so essential, have so many uses or see so much activity. (Don't try to be cool and tell me your waterbed is just as critical, you and I both know that hasn't been true since your Druid hunter hit level 90.) So take the time to get one that feels right, is made well enough to give to your grandkids, and is the right size (because we all know size matters).
In design school, they teach you that a table should end 48 inches from the closest obstacle, like a wall or buffet or what have you. Here's the thing, NO ONE has that much space in a typical American home. So most of the time, you settle for 36 inches, or even 30. This will give you enough space to walk around the table, pull out a chair, or pass out from too much wine and stuffing without hitting your head. Quick pro tip: when you buy your rug, make sure it's big enough that you can skooch out a chair and NOT have the back legs slide off the edge of the rug; it's a huge pain in the caboose when you are skooching back in. (Do ya spell "skooch" with a "k"? Anybody?)
This rug is too small:
Also, don't get round tables larger than 72 inches across because you can't reach the middle of the table (unless you want to use a Chinese style lazy susan to serve from). Having to lean WAY over a table to reach the middle is only appropriate when you want someone to look down your shirt, and let's be honest, you haven't shaved your chest in ages.
Height is something else to consider. Generally, tables are 30 inches tall. But the trickier part is the size of the apron. The apron is the part that hangs under the tabletop and holds the legs together. If the apron is too big, you won't be able to move well or cross your legs under the table without bruising your thighs. It's best to bring one of your own chairs and slide it under the table you are thinking of purchasing, and sit in it. If you don't have enough room, try to change the size of the apron instead of the height of the table. A table that is too tall is really uncomfortable and feels like you're a kid at an adult dinner party. Whether or not you can shrink the apron will depend on the kind of leg, and the strength of the material you choose.
Choose Good Material
Glass top tables are sexy and all, but you will be dusting them nine times a day; I'm partial to wood.
Woods I like: mahogany, alder, oak, walnut, cherry (if you've got the dough), or Douglas fir, extra points if it's reclaimed Douglas fir. Of course there are more, these are just the standards. (You want to get crazy, run down to Crate and Barrel and ask for a table made of Argentine Lignum Vitae and see how that goes over. That stuff is harder than calculus.) Some wood tables, like those made of Douglas fir, are designed to wear under use; they will scratch, dent, chip, everything. But all that wear simply gives the table more character. It's sort of like getting a new leather jacket: the first scratch will make you crazy, but the 478th scratch will simply add to the patina of it. These are fantastic for great rooms or kitchens or less formal spaces. For super formal rooms, use a harder wood like cherry or walnut. That being said, the best wood in the universe won't look good unless you use the right finish on it.
Use The Right Finish On It
IN VERY BASIC TERMS, there are two ways to think of finishes (This is super simplified, so all you carpenters and wood finishers out there, go ahead and delete that angry email you're about to write me): "live finishes" that will change and grow over time, and "frozen finishes" that will stay mostly the same. Live finishes are things like wax and oil. These take more frequent maintenance but are more forgiving. For instance a wax finish should be re waxed about once a year (which takes about an hour or so) but each time you do it, the finish will get deeper and more beautiful. Same with an oil. Time enhances the beauty of live finishes as the oil or wax penetrates the wood and the color develops and its subtleties become more sublime. Frozen finishes are things like lacquer or varnish or paint, which are harder but more static. With a frozen finish, what you see on the table when it is delivered is what that table will look like in ten years (aside from maybe a little yellowing if it's a light lacquer.) But with any kind of finish, trivets are key. Heat and abrasions are your enemy; you have to protect your surface.
Mega Bonus Number Five!
Protect your surfaces.
In this case your knees. If you are getting a trestle base (which is a table with two big legs usually connected by a stretcher) like this:
make sure you have the trestle recessed at least 14 inches away from the short edge of the top. Otherwise you'll conk your knees every time you sit down, and we all know there are better ways to ruin a good pair of trousers.